Friday, December 09, 2005

The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady (Feast Dec. 8)

While there may be individual continuing Anglican Catholics (AC) who would object to the content of this teaching for similar reasons to the Eastern Orthodox (EO) and earlier AC divines such as Pusey, especially because of its precarious-looking status in terms of the Vincentian Canon, it is in our authorised Missals, and so counts as part of the Tradition.
The reaction against it in both AC and EO circles has been partly based on its elevation to dogmatic status. To say it is divinely revealed in the same sense the Trinity and Resurrection doctrines are divinely revealed is simply false. A teaching that is revealed only in the most indirect and implicit fashion and is long either unknown or disputed, is obviously not a good candidate for dogma, even if the community of Faith becomes morally certain of its truth. This was precisely the objection of many Roman Catholic (RC) bishops when the Pope asked for their advice before defining the Immaculate Conception (IC) as dogma.

Another element in both AC and EO objections to RC Marian devotion in general is that it can tend very easily to lose its Christocentricity and teeter towards idolatry. For example, EO icons of Our Lady almost never picture her on her own, but in company with her Son. This is not so in Western art. As another example, and one that many Anglicans have found particularly galling, we had statements in popular RC devotional literature of the past that talked of Mary “commanding” her Son and of being the neck in Christ’s Body, so that all flowing from the Head, Christ himself, must flow through her as an intermediary. Wherever excesses and imbalances still exist, at least some of Pusey’s criticisms would still be valid. What would present-day RCs think if they read a passage like this below in a living RC theologian or heard it preached from the pulpit?

“There is some portion of the Precious Blood which once was Mary’s own blood, and which remains still in our Blessed Lord, incredibly exalted by its union with His Divine Person, yet still the same. This portion of Himself, it is piously believed, has not been allowed to undergo the usual changes of human substance. At this moment, in heaven, He retains something which was once His Mother’s, and which is, possibly, visible, as such, to the saints and angels. He vouchsafed at mass to show to S. Ignatius the very part of the Host which had once belonged to the substance of Mary.”

One of the most famous ACs of the Nineteenth Century, Pusey, believed that the IC dogma was going to lead to further dogmatisation, including of opinions such as those above. He seemed to think that the IC was only the start of an irrepressible urge to magnify Mary with virtually no limits except nominal denials of ascribing full-blown latreia to her. Fortunately, he was wrong. The RCC has, since then, tried to ensure popular exaggerations and devotional imbalances that distract from the Christ and the Gospel are kept in check much more than it used to. A welcome “development”.

However, Pusey was not infallible, and never claimed to be. The very fact that the English Calender maintained the Feast of the Conception as a black letter day even after the Reformation was considered significant by ACs. The BCP Preface to the Sanctus in the Canon for Christmas has the suggestive statement “Jesus … was made very man of the substance of the Virgin Mary his mother; and that without spot of sin”. These factors, and theological arguments of men like the great Anglican Neo-Thomist Fr Eric Mascall have all had their impact. The repeated description of Mary as Immaculate and All-Holy in the Ecumenical Councils was also determinitive: entirely without sin must mean what it says. So we have developed too.

The objection of many EO and some ACs in the past that the doctrine assumes the Augustinian doctrine of Original Guilt is not a problem once one realises it can be expressed without reference to this Western peculiarity. The key is to think positively rather than negatively and see the IC as the infusion of “sanctifying grace” simultaneous to her life beginning, or better still, as the immediate presence and power of God to save and sanctify doing so ab initio. Indeed, it was Mascall I think who noted that the IC simply involved God granting Mary the benefits of grace at her conception that we receive at baptism. The difference is that this meant sin and concupiscence were never able to find a place in her, whereas the implanting of a new nature continues to have "competition" from the pre-existing "old man" in us after baptism.

To sum up, the ecumenically Catholic belief in our Lady’s immaculacy implies, if taken seriously, a belief she was tainted by no sin or stain at all. This would include Original Sin. In addition, the suitability of Mary to be Christ’s mother must rest on what she is, not just on what she had or had not done. Her unique success in not committing any sin at all must be understood as resting on a unique condition, otherwise we risk falling into Pelagianism. Even if we do not accept the full Augustinian paradigm in soteriology, it is true to say that mankind’s fallen condition means humans come into existence affected by Original Sin, which is more than mortality[1] even if it is less than automatic liability to eternal condemnation.[2] Therefore, if all Catholics reject the idea of a sinful Mary with a corrupt human nature, they must logically all accept that she lived in that immaculate condition for a reason, and that that reason lies with God’s initiative, not hers.

There does not appear to be any justification for limiting or qualifying her immaculacy temporally if we do not do so in other ways. In other words, the mature Tradition does not leave us room to say “Mary was without any sin or sinfulness at all – except for the early part of her life.”

The following propositions I suggest are an ecumenical and orthodox statement of this doctrine.

The Blessed Virgin Mary was wholly without actual sin or sinfulness from the beginning to the end of her life on earth.
This was due to the grace of God in Christ and, later, her free co-operation.
This unique blessedness made her a fit life-spring and vessel for the Blessed One.


[1] Some Eastern Orthodox claim that the Eastern Fathers do not talk of inherited sin but inherited mortality. While these Fathers do not accept inherited guilt, they certainly do accept inherited sinfulness or corruption. Another objection put forward is that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception separates our Lady from the succession of Old Testament sanctity and breaks her link with her ancestor saints. The proper reply to this may be that her “preventative cleansing” and gracing were a reward for their faithfulness and an answer to their prayers for the complete redemption and restoration of the “virgin” Israel. It should not be forgotten that Eastern liturgical prayers on the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin call her immaculate. I am reminded of a conversation related to me by one of our priests, who discussed the issue with a Romanian Orthodox priest on December 8. Our priest concluded by saying that on that day he would celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of our Lady and that the next day his Romanian friend would celebrate the Feast of the Conception of our Immaculate Lady, so he didn’t see much difference!

[2] The Roman Catholic Church seems to have qualified its acceptance of Augustinianism by, for example, its statement in the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (sections 404 & 405) that Original Sin is called so analogically and is not, strictly speaking, a personal fault.

Fr Matthew Kirby


Albion Land said...

As a newcomer, I would be interested in knowing what continuing jurisdictions celebrate the feast; how, if at all, they justify it doctrinally, and whether the practice is generally accepted.

I recall Archbishop Hepworh being quoted as saying something along the lines of the TAC having no doctrinal differences with Rome. Is this true?

Anonymous said...

We (ACA/TAC) celebrate the ,Conception of the BVM (as I did in church at daily Office yesterday), but have pointedly not defined it as the Immaculate Conception. Many of our people, including Archbishop Hepworth are comfortable with the concept, and many (myself included) are not.

Which raises your final question. It is not quite true that there are no doctrinal differences between TAC and Rome. It is true for many, including, apparently the Archbishop, but the fact that we do not require belief in the Immaculate Conception, or in Papal Infallibility is a distinct difference.
Is Mary the greatest among saints? Absolutely! Did her fiat mihi move her into a central place in the whole plan of salvation? It surely did. Was she in any way essentially different from other humans? I believe such a concept provides serious problems in dealing with the Incarnation. Did she manage to avoid actual sin? That is at least a possibility. Was she perfect in obedience? I don't think that quite fits the witness of Scripture. She failed to recognize her 12-year-old Son's rightness in staying with the Elders at Jerusalem. She urged Him into a miracle when He himself declared it wasn't time. She (and His 'brethren') attempted to urge familial loyalty over His work when they attempted to call him out of a teaching. To know that she who can legitimately be called immaculate, who was called to be Theotokos, is a one such as I, gives me a tremendous hope and promise such as this pious opinion (based, I think on aq species of wishful thinking) simply cannot give. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis!


Fr Matthew Kirby said...


Your biblical examples prove at most imperfections in Mary's understanding, not sin. A degree of ignorance is the lot of the finite, and nobody ever claimed Mary was infinite in wisdom.

I think, however, the most interesting thing about Mary's urging Jesus to perform a miracle at Cana is that he did! This must mean it was not a sinful request, unless you accuse Jesus of sin. It is a case (of which there are others in the Gospels) where our Lord gives an apparently discouraging answer at first to test faith. Also, we see here Mary as a compassionate and effectual intercessor with Jesus. It is not until we remember that this was the first miracle according to John that we realise the degree of Mary's faith in this story.

Your theological argument again fails to distinguish two different things. Mary's immaculacy no more makes her humanity "essentially different" to yours than Eve's pre-fall sinlessness makes her other than human. Sin, whether original or actual, is "accidental" to humanity, to use scholastic terms, not essential. Mary's sinlessness should no more make her remote for you than Jesus' sinlessness should obscure his very real consubstantiality with you as a human being.

Whether you like it or not, Ed, your Church and mine are formally committed to the Seven Ecumenical Councils and Holy Tradition, which teach Mary's immaculacy. Belief in the aspect of this teaching known as the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not enforced because it is not dogma in the fullest sense, which for Anglicans includes it having to be high on the "hierarchy of truths". However, to answer Albion's question, every Church that authorises the Anglican (or American or English) Missal authorises the celebration of this teaching as a major feast. As I understand it, that includes the ACC, APCK and the TAC.


Anonymous said...

We are going to continue to differ, Father. I will not declare the impossibility of such a construct as the Immaculate Conception, but I don'r find that it has Scriptural support, nor is it the predominant view of the early Fathers. I tend to find the opinion a difficult one for a variety of incarnational reasons and find the idea that she came to salvation in the normal way that all of us do to be much simpler and fraught with far fewer problems. It may indeed be believed, but it simply can't rise to the level of a necessary dogma, and is therefore not important enough to spend a lot of argument on. I however, do value this feast as it is the only celebration we have of a specific and God-blest instance of sexual love within marriage, and the salvific ultimate results of that act.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...


The Anglican Missal calls the Feast the Conception as well but only has one collect from memory, with the phrase "spotless conception". Well, spotless is just an English translation of the Latin word "immaculatus"! The Post-Communion collect is even more explicit. So, the use of the older name signifies nothing.

The Eastern view has changed from being pro-IC to skeptical due to an understandable but unfortunate reaction to it being unnecessarily dogmatised by Rome. The best summary of the evidence for this is at the site .

You stated your and the EO view as "she heorically never subcummbed to it like the rest of us louts (except perhaps the Forerunner), which is in my humble opinion exceedingly more remarkable and laudable than being free of lustful flesh from the get go!" One can indeed find statements like that from some modern EO representatives. For example: "Mary's status as the New Eve is the result of her absolute obediance and submission to God's love, 'Let it be done unto me according you Your Word', rather than her lack of sin. Mary's obediance allowed the Holy Spirit to sanctify her and the Christ to indwell her physcially as well as spiritually. Mary thus became the first (fallen) human to experience true theosis." [From .] I have even read an Orthodox theologian (Pomazansky, I think, author of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology) write that Mary EARNED her status as Theotokos.

The problem with all of this, apart from its inconsistency with earlier Eastern thinking noted above, is its virtual Pelagianism and misunderstanding of the relationship between merit and peccability.

The idea that Mary never committed a sin, but had the same corruption of nature due to "original sin" as us -- I am construing original sin in the Eastern rather than Augustinian fashion -- means she did not need a Saviour beause she had no sin to be forgiven and her "tendency to sin" was not something she needed to be saved from on this view. Pelagius argued that it was possible for people to avoid sin, even completely, in their own power, but that grace made it easier. The Church, on the other hand, has taught that grace is required and that even the graced cannot avoid all sin due to the continuance of "the tendency to sin" in our natures while in the flesh. These assertions are not a Western peculiarity. So, if Mary did avoid all sin, as the the overwhelming voice of both E and W declares, then it can only have been through special grace. Either this was a continual series of actual graces preventing her from particular sins and strengthening her resistance to temptation, or it was a prevention of the state that leads inevitably to actual sins, namely "Original Sin". Either are logically possible explanations, but the latter is not only the simpler explanation but it is also the only one that explains how Mary's human nature was an appropriate one to be the source of Christ's human nature.

As for the claim that having lustful flesh and yet resisting temptation is morally more laudable than resisting temptation from a pure nature, if true it means that Jesus is morally inferior to us, which is a reductio ad absurdum and a blasphemy, albeit implicit and unintentional.

Therefore, the view that the IC dishonours Mary by decreasing her merits is nonsense. If the IC was wrong, it could not be so for that reason.

While I agree with you about the inappropriateness of making the IC a dogma, which means (in RC terms) anathematising those who doubt it, it is not going to disappear from "Common Prayer" as found in the Missals, nor should it. There is sufficient evidence for the doctrine in E and W Tradtion for it to be accepted as a truth, albeit a secondary one in a sense.

Finally, as to the Scriptural evidence, since the IC is basically equivalent to the complete immaculacy of Mary and the denial of both sin and any innate tendency to sin existing in her, then any Scripure making a strong parallel between Mary's and Christ's human nature is logically equivalent to the doctrine of the IC. Genesis 3.15 is one such, in its sensus plenior as prophecy. Luke 1.42 is even clearer. Here the precise same adjective, "blessed", is applied to Mary and the Incarnate Lord. And this is one of the stronger "blesseds", not just the one that can be translated as "happy", as in the Beatitudes or the Magnificat.

The Athanasian Creed points in the same direction by intimately connecting the human natures of Jesus and Mary. The evidence is there in Scripture, Creed and Tradition in the wider sense. So, while we can fairly criticise the dogmatisation of this truth and even the overly Augustinian framework of its formularisation, we must not simply deny it, disdain it, or, much less, excise it from our public liturgies.


Anonymous said...

This argument is, in my view, a singularly fruitless one.

What does one really mean by "Immaculate Conception" in the first place?

Does it mean that she was not deeply and seriously tempted to sin as we are? Nonsense! That cannot be said of her Son, who, according to Hebrews, "was tempted in all points, like as we are,, and yet without sin." That is a great mystery in itself, but one that must be accepted.

Does it mean that she was saved in some other way than by the Cross? Impossible.

Is it perhaps the result of a principle that God does not dwell in an unclean temple? I've heard that said and applied to this as well as many other aspects of theology, but it remains that, on earth, there is no other kind of temple for him to inhabit. The Baptismal Office tells me that He dwells in me, and I fail to imagine a more unclean temple than that.

I find no justification for defining or wrangling over a doctrine of this nature and thus producing completely unnecessary divisions among Christians.

Moreover, I take umbrage in your blank assertion that I am out of accord with the Seven Councils and Holy Tradition in applying the term 'immaculate' to her life but not to her conception. I am in good company. She assuredly stands far above the rest of us in her denial of the force of temptation, and stands as an example that, weak and sinful though we be in our nature, by the help of the indwelling Spirit, we too can rise up to live without sin.

Father, you are entirely welcome to believe such a thing. It can't precisely be disproved, but I am entirely unconvinced of its truth, nor am I convinced that it would be a good thing were it true.


Fr Matthew Kirby said...

If the discussion is becoming fruitless, Ed, it is only because your thinking is becoming increasingly inconsistent and unclear.

First you ask: What does one really mean by "Immaculate Conception" in the first place?

Well, read the original article again to find out.

Then you ask and answer as follows: Does it mean that she was not deeply and seriously tempted to sin as we are? Nonsense! That cannot be said of her Son, who, according to Hebrews, "was tempted in all points, like as we are,, and yet without sin." That is a great mystery in itself, but one that must be accepted.

Well, nobody has claimed Mary and Jesus were never tempted, just that they never sinned and that they were not in a fallen state such that total avoidance of sin (i.e., utterly perfect resistance to temptation) was impossible. By bringing Jesus into it for comparison, you only prove my point and undermine your own argument, for I am quite happy to grant (in fact I explicitly argued!) that both Jesus and Mary were tempted yet without sin due to the similarity in their unfallen human natures. Given that this is an argument about whether Mary contracted the corruption of nature called Original Sin, you can only argue her non-immaculate conception by analogy with Jesus if you assume He too contracted Original Sin. If you believe the latter, you are a heretic by all Christian Churches' standards. However, I am sure you do not believe that. I think you have simply not thought this through properly. By the way, your apparent belief that not having the fallen nature due to Original Sin would mean a person could not be tempted in any sense is provably false. Don't forget the first human couple fell to temptation despite starting with an innocent nature. Therefore there is nothing in the IC that would mean Mary was never subject to temptation from outside herself.

You go on to say: Does it mean that she was saved in some other way than by the Cross? Impossible.

Why on earth are you making this point? Surely you are aware that the IC doctrine bases Mary's protection from Original Sin on Christ's saving act on the Cross as seen by God in his foreknowledge? Did you not read my (less Augustinian) formulation above that said it was "due to the grace of God in Christ"?

Is it perhaps the result of a principle that God does not dwell in an unclean temple? I've heard that said and applied to this as well as many other aspects of theology, but it remains that, on earth, there is no other kind of temple for him to inhabit. The Baptismal Office tells me that He dwells in me, and I fail to imagine a more unclean temple than that.

No, I never said God could not "dwell in an unclean temple". Yes, Mary carried God in her womb, and that fact is important. But I have repeatedly laid the stress on the more important role of Mary: she was a source for God the Son's human nature. Jesus was "born of woman", to quote St Paul, not merely borne by her, so to speak.

Moreover, I take umbrage in your blank assertion that I am out of accord with the Seven Councils and Holy Tradition in applying the term 'immaculate' to her life but not to her conception.

I did not assert this blankly or in any other way, since, as it stands it would be unintelligible. Her conception is part of her life, so you cannot apply immaculacy to her life but not her conception. I did imply that someone who rejected the IC teaching outright but accepted her freedom from actual sin would be inconsistently exempting her from sin and sinfulness in every part of her life except one.

She ... stands as an example that, weak and sinful though we be in our nature, by the help of the indwelling Spirit, we too can rise up to live without sin.

Are you saying that either Mary or any Christian can, despite the presence of concupiscence, go through life and never sin at all? Is this not even more extreme than Wesley's "sinless perfectionism"? If its not possible for us, it was not possible for her. Therefore her freedom from actual sin must have had a unique basis.

Yours in Christ and St Mary,


Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Correction: Strike out "and sinfulness" in the last sentence of the third last paragraph of my previous post. Ed does in fact assert Mary's sinfulness, just not her committing any sin.

BTW, although it should be clear from a careful reading of the above, I am not saying that disbelief in the IC is a heresy, only that a particular defence of that position is implicitly (though unintentionally)heretical insofar as it

1. bases her purportedly sinful nature on the fact that she was tempted and

2. further argues by comparison with Jesus being tempted in the same way.


Anonymous said...

[i]can Fr. Kirby and Death Bredon co-exist in a single communion?[/i]

And Ed Pacht as well? I sincerely hope and pray so. We may (and will) differ on nonessentials, but we stand loyal to the same Lord, subject to the same assault of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Yes, we need to be dogged in our championing of core truths, but we need to be united around them regardless of our petty bickerings. (and I can be as petty as anyone else.)